I was in the garage welding angle iron when a neighbor pulled up to tell me he was missing six calves. He’d gone out to check on them and, not finding them, looked across the fence to see his little red guys hanging out in the middle of my mostly black herd. Rachel had been planning on moving the herd up near the corral the next day, so we told him that we’d run the calves into the corral and pen them there so he could load them into a trailer and bring them back home.
Cattle escaping from their pastures is, unfortunately, an inevitability. We have three other herds on land immediately adjacent to ours, and all three of those groups of cattle have experienced a small breakout this year. Occasionally a tree falls on a fence or some other major break in the enclosure allows animals to roam free, but most often the escapees are the little calves. Calves are small enough and just inattentive enough to blunder through fences, so they sometimes end up in strange places.
Herding calves is a unique challenge. Mature cattle are dependably group-oriented, so we can always use their desire to move within a group to our advantage. Rachel and I can move our cattle anywhere on the farm, typically without any hassle or any of the Hollywood cowboy whooping, whip cracking, and tobacco spitting. But calves, especially calves that find themselves in new circumstances, move in haphazard ways. They don’t quite understand the dynamics of the group. Moving them is always unpredictable.
We have learned with cattle that we can walk behind them, and it only takes small adjustments in our position or arm movements to alternately drive them in straight lines or to turn them around corners. When it works well, there’s a satisfying feeling in singlehandedly walking cattle through gates, up lanes, and into new pastures, sometimes even moving them past tasty grass that they’d love to stop and eat. But all that experience of stockmanship gets harder with calves. The same actions that would calmly move older cattle might split a group of calves apart, scattering them in all directions like a billiards break.
As Rachel and I tried to move the calves up the hill toward the corral, we kept having trouble with one red calf with a white face. It would act erratically, racing off in any direction, spooking the others to chase off after it. After a few tries it became evident that we couldn’t move the calves on our own; we needed some help. And Rachel knew just who to ask for help.
I always love it when someone thinks differently. We can get stuck in some mode of failure and keep pushing harder, burying ourselves deeper in a problem. But there’s often a better way to do things, one that involves a different way of looking at the problem.
We could have spent all afternoon chasing calves. But instead, we moved one of our bigger steers into the corral and we used him to bring the calves toward him. We walked the calves as close to the corral as they’d willingly go, and then Rachel made cow sounds calling to the big steer in the pen. He called back, and the calves, hearing his call, began walking closer to the corral on their own. We kept that routine up, with Rachel calling to the steer and the steer bellowing back. The sound of another bovine was all that the calves needed to feel safe in heading in that direction, and within a few minutes all six calves were safely penned up.
So now we have another tool in our stockmanship toolbox. If we can’t herd cattle, we’ll use other cattle to herd them. As with every success, in retrospect it all looks easy and seems obvious.